Whether you are a hobbyist or are trying to launch into the extreme sports photography niche, this article will help you learn how to take killer surfing action shots using a standard or professional DSLR camera.
Make it Waterproof
For capturing the action close up, the most important piece of equipment you can buy is a high-quality underwater housing. Good cameras are not cheap, and protecting your investment should be a top priority, but you also want to make sure your image quality comes out clear. While you are likely to match the price of the camera and lens contained within, it is worth shelling out the extra cash for a high-end housing. If you are a professional, and getting a custom housing is feasible, there are a number of people making secure built-to-order housings all around the globe.
Setting up the Shot
Find the balance between being in the action and being too close. As with any action-based photography, the line between photographer and subject can become easily blurred. While you do not want to impede a surfer’s ability to ride waves—for reasons of both safety and respect—you do want to capture an exciting shot. Professional surf photographer Pat Stacy recommends paying attention to surf conditions when choosing your ideal composition. If you are a surfer, or have knowledge of the sport, you will be able to gauge where you should be, in terms of both proximity and angle, to achieve a compelling composition.
If the surf is poor, and your subject is practicing technical skills on her board, you can highlight that action by shooting up close. If surfers are paddling out to ride enormous waves, you can show the whole panorama by putting some distance between yourself and your subjects. Keep in mind that the surfer should be the subject of your image; an up-close shot gives you opportunities to capture the emotion and energy of the moment.
For capturing images from the shore, you will want a decent telephoto lens, and you will likely want to use a high shutter speed, unless you are going for a more artistic shot that requires blur. For a clean, crisp image, you want a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second.
The Challenge of Light
Working with natural light and the high contrast between unbroken wave (dark) and spray (usually white) is one challenge of surf photography. If you are comfortable doing so, use manual settings to give yourself more control.
If images are too bright or washed out in appearance, select the lowest ISO you can. If necessary, use a higher shutter speed and adjust the aperture f‑number to a higher setting (but try not to exceed f/16, or you will lose the image’s crispness).
If your pictures come out too dark, find the lowest aperture your camera is capable of. You may also adjust the shutter speed to about 1/500th of a second, but avoid going any lower, as it will become difficult to control the blur of the camera.
Those who wish to avoid making constant adjustments may use their camera’s sports or action mode.
Above all, practice makes perfect, so get out there and experiment!